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How Sportsnet embraced sports betting ads, and how long they’ll bombard your TV

Dave Hodge, the former host of “Hockey Night in Canada,” made it clear he did not want to sound like he was preaching. He was talking about sports betting, and how he might have reacted if the executives had tried to insert sponsored gambling content into the intermission show when he still held the main chair.

“I would stand up and say, ‘It goes, or I go.’”

Hodge chuckled.

“I know of where I speak with taking a stance like that,” he said. “But think of what would happen if I did that: One way or the other, I’m a hero. Either I get rid of it, and everybody applauds. Or I lose my job, and everybody applauds because I took a stand that is as popular as it seems to be.”

Single-event sports betting became legal in Canada last year, and when the market opened in Ontario in April, sportsbooks flooded the airwaves with advertising. As a result, viewers can seemingly spend just as much time with gambling content as with the hockey or baseball game they tuned in to watch.

It has provided an infusion of fresh revenue to Sportsnet and TSN, which have grappled with respective rounds of cost-cutting and significant staff reductions over the last three years. Experts say that wave of advertising will recede as a smaller number of sportsbooks assert their dominance in the market, but the rush for consumers could last for at least another year or more.

Meanwhile, many Canadian viewers continue to lodge their complaints through social media, and some who work in mental health and addiction worry the constant drumbeat of gambling ads will reach those already at risk of developing financially ruinous problems.

Hodge was among the Canadian viewers who complained online, and called the ads an “annoyance” in an interview. He left “Hockey Night” after protesting programming decisions made by the CBC in 1987, and he said he was lately most concerned with how the show has wedged gambling into intermission.

“It’s prostitution of what should be valuable time — especially on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ — to do what that show is supposed to do,” said Hodge. “And this isn’t what it’s supposed to do.”

Scott Moore saw this coming. He is the former president of Sportsnet, and in remarks made to a sports business conference in Toronto last fall, he cautioned broadcast executives against overwhelming their non-betting viewers with content designed around gambling.

“It’s an interesting challenge, because there’s so much sponsorship and advertising dollars to be made right now,” Moore said in an interview. “It would take a very disciplined approach to say ‘no’ to it when you’ve come through a couple of years of lean advertising markets.”

With so many companies racing into Ontario, he said: “It’s the Klondike.”

Both Canadian sports networks had spent years developing plans on how best to mine that new money, with then-Rogers Sports & Media president Jordan Banks publicly supporting the bill that would come to overhaul Canada’s relationship with sports betting. Two years ago, Banks said Bill C-218 would help “change the experience” of watching live sports.

The bill was put forward by Kevin Waugh, a Conservative Member of Parliament from Saskatoon, and it would ultimately allow Canadians to bet on the outcome of a single game — or an event within a game — through legal means. (Plenty of Canadians were already betting, but using offshore companies.)

It became law last August, and provinces were given the authority to choose how the programs would be administered within their own borders. Just as the land rush was about to officially open in Ontario, Sam Nasrawi, the senior director of original content for Sportsnet, told the Toronto Star: “This is the first phase, and our approach will be very light.”

In June, the CBC quoted Waugh, the politician behind the new law, describing the volume of ads for sports betting as “a little excessive” while saying he was “totally shocked” that active athletes would sign endorsement deals with sportsbooks. (Waugh’s office did not respond to an email request for an interview from The Athletic.)

During Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals between the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, Sportsnet aired six promotional spots for Bet365 — from its pre-game show to intermission — over the span of 90 minutes.

Veteran hockey journalist Ken Campbell recently chartered two nights of the network’s live hockey programming. He reported sports betting ads filled about 12 per cent of commercial inventory for Sportstnet’s hockey broadcasts.

Sportsnet declined an interview request from The Athletic. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said “the sports betting industry is heavily regulated, and as broadcasters it is our top priority to ensure we comply with all regulations that have been put forth.”

The network did not respond to a question asking whether the gambling-focused intermission segment is part of an editorial decision at Sportsnet, or sponsored content. The segment features the well-known Canadian sports personality Cabral (Cabbie) Richards discussing betting-related elements of the game.

Chris Grove is a betting industry analyst, investor and partner emeritus at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, a California-based company offering research and consulting services. He said there is pressure on the sportsbooks to reach a new customer first, because it is easier than wrestling an existing customer from a competing service.

“You’re probably likely to see elevated advertising for the next year or two,” said Grove. “You’ll still see consistent advertising after that, but you’ll likely see it start to taper off once it becomes a little clearer who’s winning share.”

Companies are not allowed by law to offer financial incentives to viewers in Ontario. Grove said that could ultimately lead sportsbooks to spend more money on advertising: “You’re really going to need to rely on a consumer’s familiarity with the brand and keeping the brand front of mind to convert them, versus just competing on price alone, which is a little bit more of a blunt marketing tool.”

The impact of the advertising on a program such as “Hockey Night” reaches beyond Ontario’s borders, and when they reach Alberta, Steve Lautischer considers them to be illegal.

Lautischer is vice-president, gaming, with Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis, a government agency that oversees the industry in that province. He said outside companies looking to win Albertans as new customers are “illegal operators,” because “they don’t have the right to be selling bets into Alberta.”

“We’re looking at potential options to figure out how to discourage the use of the unregulated illegal market sites, and the advertising,” said Lautischer. “We’re assessing the situation and trying to figure out exactly what is the right path forward.”

Dr. Jeff Derevensky is concerned where the path might lead those at risk for developing a problem with gambling. He is a professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, in Montreal, and he is director of the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours.

Young males are more likely to bet on sports, he said, because they think they have special expertise in the games on which they bet. Derevensky said problem gambling is a progressive disorder, meaning the financial stakes are not necessarily critical after one bet, but as part of an escalating series of wagers.

“I think the long-term implication is that we’re going to see a lot more people, over time, with gambling-related problems,” he said. “Those gambling-related problems are not just financial in nature, but also in terms of relationships that people have.”

The proliferation of advertising normalizes the industry, he said.

“I think it is going to be a huge problem,” said Derevensky. “And our governments are really excited about the revenues that are being generated as a result of sports wagering.”

Dr. Lia Nower is a professor at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, and is also director of the Center for Gambling Studies & Addiction Counselor Training. As sports wagering becomes mainstream, she said more underaged children are accessing the sportsbooks using a parent’s credit card.

“It’s the parents that are typically the problem,” she said.

In New Jersey, she said five per cent of internet gamblers place 65 per cent of the wagers, and 75 per cent of the bets. The advent of single-event sports betting — and betting on events within a game, in real time — is a “dangerous form of sports wagering,” she said, because it is “tied to impulsivity.”

“I can be sitting in my family room, on my phone, wagering away my house, my cars, my child’s education while my child is watching a Disney movie,” she said. “I can completely hide the devastation that I’m causing until there’s no way out of it.”

Marriages can dissolve. Lives can be lost.

“It has the highest suicide rate of any addiction,” said Nower.

Shauna Altrogge has spoken with gamblers who describe an array of physical and mental ailments tied to their problem. She is director of the Gambling Awareness Program with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Saskatchewan division, and says headaches, gastrointestinal issues and insomnia appear along with anxiety.

Across the province, she said only about five per cent of those who gamble are at risk of developing a problem, and about 0.8 per cent would be considered problem gamblers. That percentage still accounts for thousands of Saskatchewan residents, she said.

“I think there’s cause for concern there,” said Altrogge. “We need to start paying a little bit more attention to what we’re seeing on TV, and maybe there needs to be some stricter guidelines and perhaps legislation around allowing the quantity of ads we’re starting to see.”

Hodge, the former host of “Hockey Night,” said he was at a Blue Jays game earlier this season. Not far from where he was sitting, he saw a young man who appeared to be making in-game bets on his phone, paying far more attention to the status of his financial stake than the scoreboard in the stadium.

He wonders how sports betting might change the relationship fans have with the sports they watch.

“If you couldn’t bet, would you go to a racetrack and watch the horses run?” he said. “That so-called sport strictly exists for betting. With hockey and baseball and football and basketball and soccer, what if they became horse racing, and the only reason to be interested was to bet?

“Maybe that’s imagining a landscape that would never occur, but I think we’re at least starting down that road.”

(Photo: Julio Cortez / AP)

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